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EMA 469/569

Before they graduated this May, engineering mechanics and astronautics seniors built and flew their own small airplanes.

Under the watchful eye of Professor John Conrad, they launched the kit-sized, radio-controlled craft in the university's massive McLean Athletic Facility, adjacent to the engineering campus. The early-December flights marked not only the halfway point in EMA 469/569, the program's two-semester capstone design course, but also the first time students in that course actually built and tested their designs. Afterward, they devised ways in which they could improve their planes' performance.

Their experience completed what Professor Mike Corradini, calls the engineering loop. "You think of something, you scope it out, you do some calculations, you do the design, you build it, you learn from that, and then you basically complete the design," he says.

The course's second semester focused strictly on designs that interested the students, who chose wildly varying projects. Working in groups of three to five, they designed a power-assisted glove, a Mars greenhouse, a tethered satellite, a fence-post driver, an adjustable pitch prop for an ultralight airplane, a vibration damper, and a Frisbee-golf cup.

Bob Diebel, whose son, James, took the course last year, volunteered as a classroom assistant. A mechanical engineer whose consulting company specialized in machine design, Diebel helped students navigate the design process, from setting project goals to generating and evaluating ideas. "The practical common sense of design is what I brought into the course," he says.

Both Conrad, and Adjunct Professor Frederick Elder, who taught the course's spring semester, infused EMA 469 and EMA 569 with an "on-the-job" atmosphere, encouraging students to think and act as if they were professional design engineers with project responsibility. And at year's end, students were required to produce written and oral reports, individual and group design notebooks, and a complete set of drawings — all of which they'd need to do in the workplace. "The course lets them experience and understand the reality of design — the fun and the challenges," says Elder.

NE (NEEP) 412

Student design project, Supercritical Water Reactor

As part of their project, students submitted designs of supercritical water reactors. (31K JPG)

In 30 years' time, researchers hope to perfect and build safer, cheaper, and more efficient and environmentally friendly nuclear reactors, such as the "Generation IV" supercritical light-water reactor.

Today, UW-Madison nuclear engineering undergraduates are choosing the sites for and designing the plants that will house those reactors — someday.

Their designs are part of the newly reformatted NE (NEEP) 412 capstone course, Nuclear Reactor Design. "We want to give them reactor design projects that are very relevant to this whole new thing, called the Generation IV roadmap, which is advanced reactors looking out decades from now," says Professor Mike Corradini, who teaches the course with Assistant Professor Paul Wilson,

For past projects, students designed nuclear plants based on existing technology. But this semester, student pairs designed a 300-megawatt supercritical light-water plant, chose a Wisconsin site for it, and conducted both environmental impact and economic studies. "They're saying, 'If it works, how would you put it together?'" says Corradini.

Throughout the course, Corradini met with the students for twice-weekly progress reports. "Their job is to lead me through the course," he says. "It's very much like a real job." At semester's end, they submitted an extensive report, which Corradini encouraged them to enter in the American Nuclear Society's student design competition.

Students benefit from the course's revised approach because their projects parallel critical ongoing research. Experience working with Generation IV technology now will give students an edge with future employers, says Corradini. "The kids really think that they're doing relevant stuff," he says.

In addition, their projects better prepare them for advanced education. "This project allows me to integrate my knowledge throughout my undergraduate study," says student Phiphat Phruksarojanakun, who will begin graduate work this fall under Wilson. "It will probably be the only assignment I remember 20 years from now."


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Date last modified: Wednesday, 22-May-2002 17:26:00 CDT
Date created: 22-May-2002